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This story first appeared in the Feb. 15 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Veteran music executive Tommy Mottola doesn’t hold back in his new memoir, Hitmaker: The Man and His Music (Grand Central). Of ex-wife Mariah Carey, the former Sony Music CEO says their relationship was “wrong and inappropriate.” Describing current Sony Corp. chairman Howard Stringer, who effectively served him his walking papers in 2003, Mottola likens his social skills to that of a glorified sommelier. As for his own legacy, the Bronx-born, Connecticut-based college dropout simply credits “a great set of ears.”
But Mottola had brains, too. Look no further than the “billion-dollar song,” Celine Dion‘s Titanic monster “My Heart Will Go On,” which he championed. As a manager, he guided Hall & Oates, Carly Simon and John Mellencamp to early success. And Jennifer Lopez, Gloria Estefan, Ricky Martin and Dixie Chicks are but a few of Sony’s marquee artists whose careers hit the stratosphere during Mottola’s tenure at the company, where he began as president of CBS Records in 1988.
That’s not to say he didn’t have stumbles: two high-profile splits (Mottola divorced first wife Lisa Clark, with whom he has two grown children, in 1992; married Carey a year later; then married Mexican actress-singer Thalia in 2000, which has yielded two kids); a nasty battle with Michael Jackson, who accused him of being “devilish”; and an unceremonious sacking after 15 years of service (during which Sony Music saw $65 billion in sales; Mottola pocketed a $20 million severance package and was reportedly offered a $100 million commitment to launch a new label). Now, Mottola, 63, looks back at how far he has come.
The Hollywood Reporter: You got your start in publishing as a song plugger — someone who pitches new material to performing artists — at Chappell & Co. Was understanding the business of songwriting an advantage to furthering your career?
Tommy Mottola: Everything starts and ends with the song, and working with writers and really learning their process and craft was an invaluable experience. Like operating on cadavers before you go into the ER — it’s that critical. For me, it was an incredibly rich experience and taught me a lot. And it’s where I met Daryl Hall and John Oates.
THR: A part of the book that elicits an immediate gasp is when you recall having dinner with Bruce Springsteen, and your boss, CBS Records chief Walter Yetnikoff, smacked him on the back of his head as if to say, “What, no hello?”
Mottola: I wanted to run out of the restaurant. The last thing I needed was Bruce thinking I was a part of that kind of behavior. It was extreme, but if you know Walter, anything was possible. Still, Walt was one of the kindest guys to come along in this business. Despite the things that brought him down and made him fall apart [alcoholism followed by a stint in rehab], he was a brilliant man, and without him, I would probably not have the opportunities that I did.
THR: Artists often wanted to take a left turn musically — be it Michael Jackson or George Michael or Terence Trent D’Arby — even if it meant losing some of their core fan base or radio relevance. It seemed the label always caved. Why?
Mottola: You have to capitulate every single time. At the end of the day, we’re nothing more than expediters. We were constantly reminding everyone to understand what your audience just bought — if you sold them an apple, be careful not to give a mud pie next time, or an album that sounds like alley cats on steroids. But ultimately, they can do what they want, and you have to do the very best getting their art to as many consumers as possible.
THR: You were accused in the press of “trapping” Mariah Carey in an unhappy marriage. In Hitmaker, you describe friction at home as she grew “resentful.” Why divulge such details?
Mottola: I came to the conclusion long ago that I gave the [marriage] the best that I could, as did she. The good news is that she went on to have a huge career, and so did I. Our personal life didn’t work out, but I continue to be her biggest fan and support her.
THR: And now Mariah is a judge on American Idol, do you think that’s a good career move for her?
Mottola: It’s funny because Randy [Jackson] worked for me for ten years, Jennifer Lopez we found and developed and the same for Steven Tyler, who was also on the label… so these are all of my friends and associates. You could use [Idol] as a giant shot in the arm. For Jennifer, the exposure took her to a whole other level. She benefited tremendously: she had a number one record, did a big tour and had all these sponsorships.
THR: You were once first in line to option the book that would become GoodFellas. What made you decide not to pursue a career in the movie business?
Mottola: David Geffen. I used to tell him, “I know I could be good at this!” And he said: “You’re out of your mind. It’s the worst business in the world.” Of course, David was right. I took my shot at it a few times, but trying to get a picture made was like pushing a rock uphill. So I decided to stick with what I know.
THR: There’s an open spot at The X Factor table …
Mottola: I’ve been asked, and I’m not sure I could be a big enough ham to look like a TV personality. I’ve always viewed myself as a behind-the-scenes person rather than in front of the camera.
THR: You still live in the New York area. These days, when you walk by the Sony Music offices at 550 Madison, which recently sold for $1.1 billion, what comes to mind?
Mottola: That it was a great time. [CEO] Doug Morris is one of my dearest friends, and I love that when I visit him, it’s my old office. But things are different, and six months from now it won’t be the Sony building anymore, so even that will change.
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